In less than two weeks’ time, Joe Root will take the field at Newlands for the first ODI between South Africa and England. It will be the first competitive game for the Englishman since September 20, when he scored a fine unbeaten 60 for Yorkshire at his home ground at Headingley.
While scoring runs in South Africa will take priority for the classy right-hander, his mind will already be drifting to a gruelling red-ball schedule coming up for England in 2021.
The red-ball skipper will have his hands full as England embark on a challenging mission which will see them play 15 Tests against India and Australia over the space of 12 months. Throw in a two-Test series in Sri Lanka plus potentially two Tests more against New Zealand in the mix and England’s red-ball squad are set to be kept incredibly busy.
This pivotal period could well be the defining chapter of Root’s captaincy, as well as his credentials as England’s greatest Test batsman in the making. As a 29-year-old, the classy right-hander is arguably entering his prime as a batsman. However, his career trajectory would suggest otherwise.
Statistically, the England talisman peaked very early into his Test career. From averaging over 57 in 2015 to his current 47, it has been a marked decline in the output from the Yorkshireman’s bat. His struggles to convert starts into big scores is well documented, and his last 33 Test appearances have yielded just a total of four centuries.
For a man who announced his arrival with a fighting 93 on debut against India in Nagpur (2012), the returns over the last three years or so have been somewhat of a bad dream. In 2019, he averaged just 37 with the bat after appearing in 12 Tests. If his glorious double ton against New Zealand in Hamilton is taken out of the equation, then that average plummets to below 29.
The double century against the Kiwis came in a moment when serious doubts were being cast around his England captaincy. The England management have continued to be equivocal in their backing of Root, and a subsequent overseas series win over South Africa have shut down the detractors for now.
Timing is everything in a sport like cricket though, and criticism can never be far away. Should the back-to-back Test series against India go awry, the knives will well and truly be out by the time England tour arch-rivals Australia for the Ashes. Australia is never an easy place to visit for an English side, especially with their current billing as the No1 Test team in the land.
The memories of Alastair Cook’s men emerging triumphant Down Under in 2010-11 are no longer fresh, and it will take a monumental effort for Root and his side to make history repeat itself.
As such, the coming months could very well make or break the legacy of Root the batsman as well as the captain. No longer is he the highest-ranked Test batsman in the circuit. That accolade is now held by star all-rounder Ben Stokes who occupies one spot ahead of Root at eighth position in the ICC table.
Since the start of 2018, Tom Latham, Babar Azam and Mominul Haque have registered more Test tons than Root’s four in the same period. Even more remarkably, the Sheffield-born batsman has brought up just the solitary Test century in his last three home summers for England.
By every account, this is a steep fall from grace for a batsman who was among the ‘Fab Four’ group coined by the late Martin Crowe. An average of approximately 40 in the last three years would still be considered a fine return for most batsmen in the business. It just doesn’t sit right for a man with the prodigious talents of Root.
By his own admission, the England stalwart believes he does not belong to the same bracket as Steve Smith, Virat Kohli and Kane Williamson.
“You’re looking at three of the greatest players the game has seen. They’re three brilliant people to watch, play and learn from,” Root had said of his Fab Four contemporaries last month.
“I’m not sure I’d put myself in their bracket, to be honest.”
While the numbers are starting to agree with Root’s statement, he does himself a big disservice by shying away from the comparison. There was a reason why Crowe placed him in that illustrious group and shades of it were seen during his 226-run knock last year in the country of the Kiwi great.
Several great batsmen in the past have endured slumps at various points in their career before recovering to their former glories. It has happened with the Tendulkars and the Pontings as well. The same is possible for Root, who is still performing at a level above most batsmen in world cricket.
The challenge for him in 2021 is as daunting as they come. Perhaps it could be the long-awaited spark that lights the fire in his belly.